Assembly to vote Thursday on 'historic' Port Authority reforms

Steve Strunsky NJ Advance Media for NJ.com

TRENTON — A pair of bills that would subject the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey to both states’ public records laws, encourage whistleblowing and require financial reporting to lawmakers in both states are scheduled for a vote Thursday by the full Assembly.

The bills have already been approved by unanimous votes of the full state Senate and by both houses of the New York State Legislature. So approval Thursday by the Assembly would mean only the signatures of Gov. Chris Christie and Gov. Andrew Cuomo of New York were required to enact the first bi-state laws governing the Port Authority in 23 years — measures intended to enhance transparency and accountability in the wake of the George Washington Bridge lane closure scandal and a controversial 2011 toll hike.

“I would call it a historic vote,” said Assemblywoman Valerie Vainieri Huttle (D-Bergen), who sponsored both bills. Huttle said she was looking forward to yet another bi-partisan, unanimous vote on the bills, which would send a strong message to the governors that they should sign them.

“I’m really optimistic, because you have two states that have come together that have not done this since 1991,” Huttle said, referring to an amendment to the 1921 interstate compact creating the Port Authority that expanded public access to the agency's meetings.

Huttle (D-Bergen) co-authored the bi-partisan bills with state Sen. Robert Gordon (D-Bergen), sponsor of the Senate versions. Assembly Republican cosponsors include Amy Handlin, Alison McHose and Holly Schepisi.

Huttle and Gordon began crafting the bi-state legislation following the September 2013 lane closures with New York State lawmakers including Assemblywoman Amy Paulin, a Democrat from Westchester County.

“It’s a critical vote,” Paulin said of Thursday’s scheduled action in New Jersey. “It means four out of our six partners are adopting a law that will promote transparency and prevent a Bridgegate from ever happening again.”

The toll hike and the Bridgegate scandal have had a greater impact on New Jerseyans, and Paulin said there is not the same level of anger and mistrust toward the Port Authority among her constituents as exists in the Garden State. But she noted that the Port Authority is a huge agency that affects people in both states through its control of the region’s airports, shipping terminals, the World Trade Center and other facilities.

"I would call it a historic vote...you have two states that have come together that have not done this since 1991."

“Any time a government entity does something so outrageous and contrary to people’s interest, the confidence level deteriorates and everyone suffers,” said Paulin, who together with Assemblyman Robert Brennan, a Brooklyn Democrat, reached out to Huttle and Gordon to collaborate on the bi-state legislation.

Paulin said she did not know whether Cuomo planned to sign the bills, and neither governor has given any indication of their plans.

One of the bills, A3350, would subject the Port Authority to both states' freedom of information laws. People who believe their document request was wrongly denied would be able to sue the agency under either state law. The other, A3417, contains provisions including mandatory annual reports by the agency to both states' legislatures, and whistleblower provisions requiring employees to report impropriety to revamped Port Authority inspector general’s office, with protections against what they believe to be impropriety.

The bills do not contain structural changes included in a reform bill introduced by Assemblyman John Wisniewski (D-Middlesex), which would strip the governors of their veto power over Port Authority actions, transfer half of their board appointments to lawmakers and a citizens’ advisory panel, and bar the custom in which the governors name the agency’s top leadership.

Wisniewski said he supports the Gordon-Huttle bills, but insists that interference by the governors is at the root of the agency's problems, and that their influence must be checked. Gordon and Huttle say Wisniewski's bill would never be signed by the same governors whose powers it would restrict.

All the measures are in direct response to revelations of dysfunction, abuse of power, and interstate rivalry within the Port Authority, revealed by legislative hearings into the September 2013 George Washington Bridge lane closures. Federal, state and legislative investigations of the closures are ongoing, but documents and testimony have shown the closures were orchestrated by Christie appointees to the Port Authority and a deputy chief of staff in his office, all of whom have resigned or been fired.

Many Democrats believe the traffic-snarling closures were intended as political retribution against the Fort Lee mayor for refusing to endorse the governor’s re-election bid. Christie has insisted he had no advance knowledge of the closures nor any role in them.

But even before the lane closures, Huttle and Gordon sponsored similar legislation in the wake of the toll hike, the next increment of which takes effect on Dec. 7, bringing tolls on bi-state bridges and tunnels to $11.75 for E-ZPass subscribers and $14 for cash customers. The hike was criticized for its size, for a public hearing process that many believed discouraged public input, and for what several sources at the time said was astaged intervention by the governors to give them cover for the unpopular increase, orchestrated by the same political appointees who directed the lane closures.

Christie issued a conditional veto of that reform bill in 2012, insisting that the reforms should also apply to New Jersey’s other independent authorities, and adding that the bill was unnecessary because of voluntary reforms had already been implemented by the Port Authority. 

Since Bridgegate, the Port Authority has adopted or is looking into additional voluntary reforms, some of which overlap with the pending bills, including measures regarding conflicts of interest, fiduciary responsibilities and ethical stardards. But Brennan said it was important to codify such measures in law to guard against backsliding by the agency.

“Their bylaws can be changed at any time, by the board itself,” Brennan said. “Once there are in law, they are final.”

Steve Strunsky may be reached at sstrunsky@njadvancemedia.com. Follow hin on Twitter @SteveStrunsky. Find NJ.com on Facebook.